Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Choosing Death. Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Choosing Death. Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Article excerpt

Choosing Death. Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva. By Jeffrey R. Watt. [Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies Series.] (Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 361. $45.00 clothbound; $30.00 paperback.

Dr. Watt is to be commended for producing a work that is extremely dense in detail and information and yet very lucid and readable. He begins his fascinating study on the evolution over time of suicide in the Genevan Republic with an excellent introduction to the historiographical and medico-psychological views of suicide as an act and a socio-cultural phenomenon. Moreover, he locates his discussion in the views not only of the people of the early modern world attempting to explain and understand suicide but also of theoreticians and jurists of subsequent centuries. His treatment then moves to a comprehensive analysis of the data surrounding suicides, homicides, and accidental deaths over 250 years of Genevan history. He reports on everything from gender, age, and method of death to seasonality. His second chapter discusses the judicial and intellectual (theoretical) views on suicide. Interestingly, he notes the almost total lack of discussion on the subject by theologians with the exception of Calvin and Daneau, who he notes were both trained lawyers as well as ministers. In addition to discussing theories about suicide, he charts the evolving practical reactions to suicide in the law from the Reformation to the French Revolution, noting the change from corpse desecration and estate confiscation to denial of burial honors and fines to almost no action at all except social embarrassment. Here he also notes at length the developing debate amongst jurists and other thinkers as to the appropriateness and acceptability of suicide in any (and all) circumstances. His conclusion is that even those who argued for suicide's decriminalization were extremely unenthusiastic about the act itself. …

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